Abstract: The paper aims at profiling the bold and unapologetic women leaders of the Indian freedom struggle with respect to Kerala. It discusses the head on first activities led by women who were born to lead the freedom struggle movement in Kerala. When subjected to a historical scrutiny, the women who had dared to court arrest with their leadership and participation in the Civil Disobedient movements create a glorious legacy modeling to be the ideal woman of society, empowered by her own deeds and space in her community.
Keywords: State congress, Travancore state, youth league, non-violence, Indian freedom struggle, Salt Satyagraha, Civil Disobedience Movement, women’s organizations, rigorous imprisonment period, state congress youth, ideal woman
Indian freedom struggle has at its various junctures and phases been instrumental in inducing women to venture out into the socio- political arena. In the 1920s, as the Indian National Congress was undergoing its transformation into a party of the masses, Gandhiji’s exhortation to the women to join their male counterparts in the struggle for India’s freedom had come, resulting in more and more women joining the party. The real reason behind such a wide scale enrollment of women following Gandhi’s plea can be attributed to the impact that his political vision based on non-violence had on women. While women to the like of Renuka Roy who donated her entire jewelry and joined the Civil Disobedience Movement of the 1920’s, Kamala Chattopadhyaya who sold banned books in between the Satyagrahas and got arrested by disobeying the law, Sarojini Naidu who formed the women wing of the Congress and led the Salt Satyagraha following Gandhij’s arrest in 1930, Rajkumari Amritkaur, Mridula Sarabhai, Sucheta Kripalini, Padhmaja Naidu, Durgabai Deshmukh and Aruna Asif Ali, were all leading the national freedom movements from the forefront and had dedicated their lives to this great cause, women in Kerala were also not sitting idle either. They were also making their own special contributions to the freedom struggle by fearlessly participating in various movements that were going on. They were taking part in the demonstrations held against the British Raj and a lot many of them had been jailed in the pickets organised demanding the prohibition of liquor and rejection of foreign goods. Seen from another striking perspective, the pressing demand for more personnel in the freedom struggle had provided the women in India with a golden opportunity to come out in large numbers after long periods of their subjugation in terms seclusion and segregation at their homes.
An All India Women’s Conference was conducted in 1927 in which Kamala Devi was elected the general secretary. By the 1930s, the women’s organisations had started raising the issue of adult franchise. However, the British government chose to ignore their demand. In the meantime, Indian National Congress could create a wave of excitement among these women with its offer of open support for the cause of political equality for women in the Karachi conference held in 1931. As women were moving ahead with such remarkable progress, making great strides and getting more increasingly influential at the national level, a simultaneous increase in enthusiasm became quite evident among the women in Kerala too who started actively taking part in large numbers in the struggles organised around the 1930s and 40s. The Civil Disobedience movement with Malabar as its centre received great national attention due to the dynamic participation of women. Many women’s organisations such as Balabharath Sangam, Baalikasangam, Mahilasangam and Students League took part in the Salt Satyagraha of 1931 and their volunteers courted arrest.
Payyanur was the selected site for Salt Satyagraha in Kerala. The women, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi continued to join the freedom struggle. A branch of Anne Besant’s Home Rule League was established in Malabar. Sarojini Naidu participated in the 2nd Kerala Pradesh meeting held at Palakkad in 1932. As the Freedom movement started gaining momentum in Kerala, a large number of women participated in the 6th Conference of the Kerala Pradesh meeting held at Kozhikodu in 1932 and courted, arrested and were thrashed.
Karthyayani Amma and Kunjulekshmi, who had left behind their jobs to partake in the picketing and Satyagrahas organised as part of the freedom struggle, led the strikes in Kerala from the forefront. Parvathi Aiyappan was another woman from Kerala who could reach the forefront of freedom struggle at the national level through her participation in various social reform movements. Mukkapuzha Karthyayani, O. T. Saradha Krishnan, A. V. Kuttimalu Amma and Akkama Cheriyan became the active volunteers of Congress in Kerala. In the latter half of the 1930s, many women including Kalikutti Aashatti, Arya Pallam, Parvathy Nenminimangalam and Lalithambika Antharjanam joined the Left wing movement in Kerala.
When the magnitude of Malayalee women’s contribution in the arena of Indian freedom struggle is subjected to a historical scrutiny, the women who had dared to court arrest with their leadership and participation in the Civil Disobedient movements create a glorious legacy. In January 1931 women, under the leadership of Gracy Aron, led a procession towards the Kozhikode beach. All the volunteers were arrested by the police and they pleaded maximum punishment in the trial and were sent to jail for rigorous imprisonment for a period of six months. The fifth dictator (president) Ishwariamma and M. K. Janaki courted rigorous imprisonment for a period of one year for violating the salt law.
A. V. Kuttimaluamma, Kunjikavamma, Akkamma Cheriyan, Mettilda Kallan, Kamalam, Annie Mascrin, Karthyayaniamma and Kochukuttiyamma had also been imprisoned for a year and half. All of them had pleaded for maximum punishment in the trial. A. V. Kuttimaluvamma was left with no option but to take her infant along with her while she went to jail for a period of 2 years.1
Educated women like Akkamma Cheriyan chose to enter the field of politics despite being confronted with impediments of different sorts, realising the significant role women had to perform in the fulfillment of their social duties. The joint upsurge and camaraderie that the women exhibited in the field of freedom struggle can also be considered as a political statement on behalf of all the women who had hitherto been leading a life of discontent in the face of the injustices meted out to them by subjecting them to servitude inside homes and within the community. The insults and tortures these women had to endure in jails were reprehensible. Nonetheless, they had mustered the courage to face such things as they were there after surviving many incidents of ruthless gender discrimination in society.
Akkamma Cheriyan has said, ‘society has always been quite guarded in their attitude towards women who had shown a certain amount of awareness regarding their status as free individuals.’ She goes on to add that ‘the reason for this might be the potential fear of damage such women are capable of inflicting on the patriarchal structure.’2 Akkamma Cheriyan and her sister Rosamma Punnus themselves were a case in point as they had entered the political sphere of Kerala at a time when the Syriyan Christian women were not allowed to wear sarees or chappals, bath daily, show their heads outside the kitchen and to even speak or laugh aloud, flouting all these norms. The traditional Malayalee notion of the ideal feminine was completely defied and the whole range possibilities regarding women’s potential for able leadership get manifested in all its might in Kerala history when Akkamma Cheriyan led the march towards the Maharaja’s palace as the 12th dictator (president) of the Travancore State Congress.
The beginning of popular agitation in Travancore for independence coincided with the accession of Maharaja Chithirathirunal to the throne and the appointment of C. P. Ramaswamy Ayyar as the Diwan in 1936.
Annie Maskreen, Akkama Cheriyan, Rosamma Punnus, Subhadramma, Radhamma, Gouriyamma and Kuthattukulam Mary were all part of the revolt demanding responsible government. The arrest of Kamaladevi Chandhopadhyaya, member of the National Socialist Party, who came to Thiruvananthapuram to chair the Youth League Conference that was to be held on August 20, 21 1938, triggered the rebellious spirit of women in Travancore. What happened was that though the decision to start the agitation was taken on August 6, 1938, the State Congress and the Youth League were declared unlawful on August 20. The working committee of the State Congress had to be dispersed and an organising committee for conducting strikes was put in place instead. The President of the committee held the supreme power and the right to decide and nominate her/his successor. Accordingly, it was Elizabeth Kuruvila who was chosen to succeed A. G. John and she also became the first woman from the Travancore State Congress to court arrest in this upheaval.
Akkamma Cheriyan was selected as the 12th dictator (president) of the Travancore State Congress. She was 29 years old then. Akkamma’s responsibility was to lead mass rally towards the palace and submit the petition containing the demand for the rights of the State Congress to the Maharaja overcoming all possible hurdles on the way. The petition contained the following eleven demands.
- The Government’s unambiguous official declaration that the responsible government will be established soon.
- Authorising a committee which should contain State Congress nominees not less than half the number of its entire member strength and a fair representation of labourers for preparing and submitting an action plan for the completely responsible Government within 2 months.
- Removing the ban on State Congress and Youth League
- Rescinding the Criminal Law amendment
- Release of all Political Prisoners
- The release of all who were arrested from the Youth League, student organisations, labour Unions and other strike committees.
- Requite the money and the property collected as fine from the Political Prisoners
- Revoke the Punishment procedures initiated against the students, teachers and managements.
- Provide compensation for all those who had to undergo military and police atrocities such as the student hunting that took place in the Science College.
- Conduct an impartial enquiry into the brutalities committed by the police and the military and finding out the real culprits and punishing them.
- Remove the ban on all the newspapers coming out from both inside and outside Kerala. (Cheriyan 83)
The birthday of Maharaja Sri Chithira Thirunal is a huge event of celebration in Travancore and on that day the royal road would be filled with colourful processions, police and military parades and the whole city would be reverberating with gun salutes to the king. The State Congress Procession Committee selected that day to see and submit their demands before the Maharaja. It was on 1938 October 23.
In Akkamma Cheriyan’s biography, the event of the dictator (president) coming to lead the march is described thus. “The train from Chengottai, the North eastern border of Travancore, came to a halt in the capital city, Thiruvananthapuram. Akkamma Cheriyan, accompanied by hundreds of State Congress Volunteers alighted the platform. The whole station had come to a standstill amidst the hubbub and thundering voice of ‘Jai Ho’ emanating from the huge crowd gathered over there and she could not even move. Then the volunteers interfered, they surrounded her, formed a path and led her safely outside the station into an open car.”3
Akkama Cheriyan’s speech to the crowd before the march and her response towards the brutal assault unleashed by the police on the volunteers have left an indelible impression in the Malayalee psyche of the women’s potential for excellent leadership, their courage, sense of freedom and their steadfastness to the cause given an opportunity.
‘The massive revolt that is happening in Travancore to establish responsible government has compelled me to leave the academic atmosphere and to take up a responsible rank in the revolt. There is an attempt to reduce the scope of this revolt to a mere struggle for the rights of citizens. But, let me say that, dismissing all such undesirable technical interpretations that is being uttered around and the legal complexities involved, the assumption that the State Congress would be satisfied with just the grant of citizenship rights after going through all these hardships and sacrifices is mere foolery. In fact the rights of the citizens can be ensured only in a democratic society. Hence, I find it my duty that I shall take part in this strike till the very end.
Thus, I consider this revolt to be part of not just the Indian Freedom struggle but as part of the revolt taking place in the whole world between the imperial and democratic powers. Viewed from this perspective, this strike has more than just provincial importance. Hence, I am proud of devoting my energies for the inception of justice, freedom and democracy.
The political enthusiasm that I witnessed here and the way I was greeted on my way to Thiruvananthapuram to lead this rally make the seriousness of the public to this great cause quite clear. I am indeed glad to witness this resilience on your part to not to back off at any cost. We should not at all deviate from our decided agenda. Our agenda is to go to the royal palace as a procession and submit people’s demands before the His Highness the Maharaja. I am immensely glad to lead this procession.
I urge each volunteer to stick to the vow of non-violence in the face of provocations of any kind. Some irresponsible individuals in the guise of volunteers may try to intimidate us from our vow. We must be cautious that such things might not happen. Absolute non-violence should be our slogan. Come; let us move towards the palace’ (Cheriyan 83).
Colonel Wadkis, who tried to intimidate the volunteers by forcing lorry, cavalry and infantry amidst the crowd in order to disperse them, told Akkamma that they would not be allowed to see the Maharaja without yielding to proper procedures. Watkis became furious when Akkamma asked him if he would tend his apologies for being brutish towards the volunteers who were protesting peacefully by sitting and lying down if that was carried out not on his orders. He took the gun and threatened the people with firing if they did not disperse by themselves.
“I am the leader; shoot me first before you kill others if you intend to do so” (Ibid 109). This sight of Akkamma Cheriyan daring Watkins to fire on her bosom after removing the flower garlands that adorned her chest which had been gifted by the volunteers is an unforgettable sight in the history of Travancore freedom struggle. It is impossible to have had such a woman’s leadership to have emerged from the concept of an ‘ideal woman’ that was constructed by the patriarchal Renaissance Movements and so on. The agitation led by Akkama Cheriyan and her life is helpful to understand that the human attributes and the abilities are identical for both man and woman, but due to social pressure, man and woman submit themselves for the nourishment or abandonment of some attributes to fit into the definition of ‘ideal man’ and ‘ideal woman’. On the contrary, to go by the conventional practice of attributing manliness to someone like Akkama Cheriyan, as often done while depicting such courageous women fighters, if adhered to in this case would amount to gross injustice committed on her as a person and would also undermine the historical importance of her struggle. Even now the predominant impulse seen among the writers of history seems to be one that tends to equate the attributes such as power and leadership potential as something innately associated with man and hegemonic masculinity. Akkamma Cheriyan’s book 1114 nte Katha (The Story of 1114) is a critique of such patriarchal modes of thinking that take the province of active thinking and practice, courage, confidence and pragmatism as the exclusive realm of the male and give more authenticity and value to man’s experience in the world.
The removal of Akkamma Cheriyan from key positions of the party and the isolation that she had to face later in the political sphere is inextricably intertwined with the patriarchal power taking over institutions of power single handedly post independence. The Travancore State Congress had denied ministership to Akkamma Cheriyan who had consistently dealt with the suppressive and torturous Sir C. P. continuously for nine years and who had spent more than three years in jail in connection with the freedom movement. It can be seen that Pattom Thanupillai had after becoming chief minister invited Akkamma Cheriyan to his office and put forward the offer of ministership to her only to reject it later. She was also denied a seat in the parliament election. The information contained in Akkamma Cheriyan’s unpublished book 1114 nte Katha (The Story of 1114) consists of descriptions of the feeling extreme contempt that she felt towards the leaders who were vying for obtaining positions of power in the state. This book that remains unpublished till date reminds us of how the whole process of disappearance of the documents related to such great woman fighters is sometimes carefully engineered. It also draws our attention to the life of many such women whose experience remains undocumented.
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The nature and experiences of women’s participation remain considerably different from that of men in the Punnapra Vayalar revolt that took place in Alappuzha too. Among the chief activists who had gone underground after the firing that took place in Vayalar included the 12 year old P. K. Medini. Medini’s revolutionary songs held a pride of place in the Punnapra Vayalar left wing movements from the 1940s. Medini was caught while she was hiding and was imprisoned. Medini says “in all revolutions living martyrs are the wives of the male participants. Most of the men became martyrs. Those who remained went underground. The harsh brutality that the police unleashed in the homes of the participants is inexplicable. Compounded with these sufferings were the miseries caused by being a woman. The women had to earn their living as the whole responsibility of looking after the family fell on her shoulders. Kalikutti Ashathi, who organised women and equipped them to face the police assault using sickle and chilly powder remain unknown legends in the history of the Punnapra Valayar revolt.”4
Medini’s songs became an unavoidable ingredient in the party meeting of the 1950s. Medini, by her own estimate, had been performing a significant party work by acting as a crowd puller with her songs in the party meetings. Kollam Joseph’s wife saw her husband seven years after the firing took place in Punnapra Vayalar. She was not even aware of the fact that he was in jail. Kandamanka, the mother of T. K. Kumaran who died in the gun firing, has said that she was not even shown the body of her son.5 Women had always made immense contribution to all such significant agitations that took place in the state. The female life experiences centering on stories of brutal harassment at the hands of the police and goondas seem to be a common thread running through the otherwise extremely diverse stories of resistance, retaliation and contribution by women.
What we could see in such histories of agitations is the extraordinary strength exhibited by these women who had boldly vied with a life full of tortures, losses, anxieties, helplessness, insecurity and extreme emotional turbulence. However, we commonly come across a kind of approach that valorises or idealises the endurance evident in the life stories of these women. The endurance exhibited by these women is idealised by drawing connections between their life experiences and the patriarchal society’s notion of ‘the ideal woman’. This approach had been clearly damaging in that it has reduced the history of women’s struggle in to something unimportant and cloudy by rendering it as a mere byproduct of the suffering and sacrifices made towards contributing to the great and real cause that the men were pursuing.
1 ‘Keralam Innale, Innu’, Seminar Proceedings, 1995, February 11-12.
2 See Akkamma Cheriyan’s description of communal taboos that a woman born in a noble Suriyani Catholic family had to face. Akkamma Chriyan. “Akkammavarkeyude Ormakuruppukal-5.” Deepika. 19 October 1972.
3 Parvathy, R. Akkamma Cheriyan. New Delhi: NBT.
4 India Today, Woman’s Edition – 1995.
5 India Today, Woman’s Edition – 1995.
Cheriyan, Akkamma. 1114 nte Katha. Kottayam:DC, 1977.
—. “Akkammavarkeyude Ormakuruppukal-5.” Deepika. 19 October 1972.
C.S. CHANDRIKA. Is a Malayali novelist, Feminist and academician. She currently works as Principal Scientist (Team Leader- Tribal Development Programme) at Community Agro-biodiversity Centre of M.S. Saminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF). She is a notable public intellectual in Kerala in the area of literature, culture and gender.
Translated by Anu Lekshmi U. G. and Shiyana R.